A new, two-hour program explores the 2014 death of Southern Illinois University student Pravin Varughese and his family’s yearslong campaign for justice. But an attorney for the man accused of killing Varughese said it’s time to stop “dragging” the man “through the mud when he didn’t do anything wrong.”
Varughese, an Indian-American sophomore from Morton Grove, Illinois, went missing after attending a party on Feb. 12, 2014. His body was found days later in a wooded area in Carbondale.
“Who Killed My Son?,” which is available to stream on the Discovery Plus platform starting Tuesday, shows how the Varughese family struggled in the wake of Pravin’s death and refused to believe he died in a tragic accident. Cameras follow family members as they celebrate when a man who gave Pravin a ride after the party and said he hit him was found guilty of murder — only to see a judge throw out the conviction on the day of sentencing.
The case drew considerable media coverage, including on the NBC series “Dateline.” Varughese’s mother, Lovely, says it’s not easy to recall her son’s death on TV, but the spotlight has been important in her family’s push for answers.
“It seems like I am the chosen one from the family from the beginning, and I’ve been talking about it. I think that was one good thing we did from the beginning. If it wasn’t for the media, this case never would have seen the light. So we kept this in the public,” Lovely Varughese told the Tribune by phone. “And it is hard. It’s not an easy thing to do for me, to talk about my son’s death and injuries all the time. But even if I don’t talk, it is in my mind all the time.”
Varughese said her 19-year-old son, a Niles West High School graduate, loved life, his family and the world. He intended to pursue a career in law enforcement, she said. That’s mentioned on the Discovery Plus program even as Varughese questions the handling of the case. An initial investigation determined Pravin died of hypothermia with no indication of foul play, but the family commissioned an independent autopsy that concluded he suffered blunt force trauma to his head.
Gaege Bethune, a white man who gave Pravin a ride after the party, was eventually charged with first-degree murder. Bethune testified the two scuffled before Pravin took off into the woods on that frigid night. Bethune’s trial attorney, Michael Wepsiec, argued Pravin’s wounds were “superficial” and could not have led to his death.
A jury in 2018 found Bethune guilty after a two-week trial in Jackson County. But on the day he was to be sentenced, the judge set aside the verdict after identifying an issue with the wording of the charging document. Varughese said she is optimistic Bethune will someday face new charges related to the death of her son.
“I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but I’m hoping for the sanity of the justice system it will happen one day. People have to have faith in the system, and they have to have hope,” Varughese said.
Varughese had not seen “Who Killed My Son?” before she talked to the Tribune, but hoped that it “touched every angle showing how our journey was, how a family pushed through the legal system here, especially since we are a minority and an immigrant family.”
The program, executive produced and narrated by journalist Soledad O’Brien, focuses on the Varughese family and does not feature commentary from Bethune or his family. A spokesperson for the production team said in a statement to the Tribune “extensive outreach” was made to Bethune, his family and friends “with no response.”
Bethune’s attorney — Steve Greenberg, who is also representing embattled R&B singer R. Kelly — agreed to an interview, but the production team said it instead chose to interview Wepsiec “due to limited time and budget.” The production team said it didn’t end up using Wepsiec’s footage because he did not sign an appearance release. Wepsiec told the Tribune he and production could not reach an agreement on a release that was favorable to both sides.
Greenberg blasted the project in a statement to the Tribune. “I saw the trailer. It’s enough already. These people claiming it was racist. It was because their son was afraid he was going to get kicked out of school, and it’s time they stopped dragging poor (Gaege) through the mud when he didn’t do anything wrong. Take some personal responsibility. I feel sorry for them because their son died, that’s an awful thing, but the remedy isn’t to ruin someone else’s life just so you can make yourself feel good.”
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